Weekend news roundup

24 Oct 2011

A trawl through the weekend newspapers’ coverage of tech affairs, including China’s search for the next Steve Jobs, NASA’s plans for fuel depots in the skies and Google’s radical redesign.

Dropping a digital bomb

For some reason Dropbox, the web/mobile app that allows you to sync your documents in the cloud, became regarded as the world’s most valuable start-up, prompting questions over whether it’s a feature or a product. The late Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs famously declared it as a feature, and after his attempts at buying Dropbox were spurned, he went ahead and built iCloud, anyway.

Writing in The Observer, John Naughton opined that the threat posed to Dropbox by Apple’s rival service demonstrates the difficulty in nurturing a successful digital start-up.

“One minute, you have a beautiful little business with great prospects. You are offered an opportunity to cash out – and incidentally make yourself rich – by selling your baby to a giant company. But you decline the offer and the next day you find that the giant has decided to crunch you underfoot. Suddenly, you’re fighting for your life. Welcome to the digital jungle.”

Google’s gigantic facelift

Google is getting a facelift, says the San Jose Mercury News, at the instigation of new CEO Larry Page.

“Google’s new, less-cluttered look debuted with the Google+ social network at the end of June, and is now being phased in to Gmail, Calendar, Documents, Search and other Google sites across the company’s online empire. While Google’s plans for a wholesale face-lift were overshadowed by the hubbub over the launch of Google+, Page months before had set in motion a crash program by the company’s user interface (UI) designers to remake.”

The iBio: Steve Jobs’ biography review

As a newspaper at the heart of Silicon Valley, it was only fitting that the San Jose Mercury News was among the first to review Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson.

“Isaacson takes his readers back to the time when laptops, desktops and windows were metaphors, not everyday realities. His book ticks off how each of the Apple innovations that we now take for granted first occurred to Jobs or his creative team.

“’Steve Jobs’ biography greatly admires its subject. But its most adulatory passages are not about people. Offering a combination of tech criticism and promotional hype, Isaacson describes the arrival of each new product right down to Jobs’ theatrical introductions and the advertising campaigns. But if the individual bits of hoopla seem excessive, their cumulative effect is staggering.

“Here is an encyclopedic survey of all that Jobs accomplished, replete with the passion and excitement that it deserves.”

The future of space travel

NASA is considering putting space fuel depots in outer space to supply future space missions, according to The New York Times.

“The filling stations — NASA calls them propellant depots — would refuel a spacecraft in orbit before it headed out to the moon, an asteroid or eventually Mars. Currently, all of the fuel needed for a mission is carried up with the rocket, and the weight of the fuel limits the size of the spacecraft.

“Next month, engineers will meet at NASA headquarters in Washington to discuss how propellant depots could be used to reach farther into space and make possible more ambitious missions using the heavy-lift rocket that NASA is planning to build. The discussions grow out of a six-month NASA study of propellant depots, completed in July.

“However, the space agency has rejected the study’s most radical conclusion: that NASA could forgo the heavy lift and use existing smaller rockets, combined with fuel depots, to reach its targets more quickly and less expensively. Those targets, for the next two decades at least, include a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. (A trip to Mars is unlikely until at least the 2030s.)”

The search for China’s Steve Jobs

As the world’s fastest-growing economy, it is clear to many that China’s economy could dominate the 21st century as the US did in the 20th. The tech powerhouse that is China is missing a key ingredient, however, young technology gurus with the vision demonstrated by Steve Jobs, according to the Financial Times. China intends to fix this.

“When Dave McClure, a venture capital investor from Silicon Valley, spoke at an internet entrepreneurs’ club in China last week, he had a lot of praise for his hosts.

“Chinese entrepreneurs are most likely smarter and more aggressive than (those) in the US,” he told the audience. “Beijing is one of the few places in the world where the pace of innovation is faster than in Silicon Valley.”

“But in China, the recent mood has been more sober. The death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs this month triggered rounds of soul-searching over why the country lacks technology entrepreneurs as successful as Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who came up with products that changed the world.

“’Chinese companies can be expected to have market valuations and business models like Apple’s within 10 years but it is difficult to expect any type of Apple-like innovation,” says Lee Kaifu, the former head of Google China who, with his incubator Innovation Works, has become a guru for internet start-ups in China. 

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years